The strange story of Parmentier… the prince of potatoes

What Steve Jobs did for the iPhone and Elon Musk is doing for electric cars, Antoine-Augustin Parmentier did that and more - for potatoes.

It all started when Parmentier, serving as a pharmacist in the French army during the Seven Years war (1756-1763), was captured and imprisoned by Prussians.

Imagine his surprise when he was fed what the French knew as pig-feed in prison and it turned out to be the quite delicious potato we now know and love. Parmentier was so enamoured with the ‘hog-feed’ that when he was eventually returned to Paris, he seemed to talk about little else.

Perhaps it was the opportunity to introduce a low-cost, easy to grow crop – to a people suffering from severe nutrition problems – that grabbed him. Because at that time in France, only the rich ate well.

Regardless of motivation though, the series of publicity stunts Parmentier used to bring the potato into prominence would surely put most modern-day marketing professionals to shame.

He served spuds at banquets with celebrity guests, presented a bouquet of potato blossoms to the king and queen and even surrounded his own potato patch with an excessive amount of armed guards – just so people would know it was valuable.

At night he would instruct his guards to take some time off so that the public could sneak in and steal the crop. It was viral marketing long before the term was coined.

Over the course of a few years, Parmentier took potatoes from something used for feeding pigs, to something worth breaking the law to get your hands on.

In 1772 potatoes were officially declared edible by the Paris Faculty of Medicine – and still today you can cook up Parmentier Potatoes. You can buy them ready made in your local supermarket.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the story of Antoine-Augustin Parmentier though is that the same issues he was encountering in the 1700s – of poor nutrition and mass inequality – are still hugely prevalent today all over the world.

At Traidcraft Exchange our solutions to these problems are slightly more complex than the humble spud, but we’re hoping to take some of Parmentier’s passion and use it to stand up for justice, fairness and equality in trade.

If you’re interested in finding out more about how exactly we do that, sign up to our email list below…

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J McNaughton